Commercial air service returning to Lakefront Airport

“Our competition  is not airlines  at Armstrong.  Our competition is Ford and General Motors.” R. Stan Little, founder of Southern Airways Express

New Orleans A fledgling Memphis company is returning scheduled commercial air service to the New Orleans Lakefront Airport more than six decades after those flights first moved to Kenner.

Southern Airways Express plans to begin service to Memphis, Tenn.; Gulf Shores, Ala.; Panama City, Fla.; Destin, Fla.; and Oxford, Miss., next month as part of the company’s plan to create an affordable alternative to the weekend road trip, said R. Stan Little, the company’s founder.

Little said the company hopes to eventually offer three to four flights daily from New Orleans, starting around June 26. One-way tickets on the airline will range from $129 to $249, and the planes will seat nine passengers, Little said.

Lakefront Airport hasn’t had scheduled commercial service since flights were moved to Moisant Field in Kenner in 1946 because of the need for increased air traffic capacity. Moisant Field eventually became Louis Armstrong International.

The airport, situated on Lake Ponchartrain, is in the middle of a $17 million renovation of its main terminal with the goal of restoring the facility’s Art Deco design after it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

However, Little’s company won’t be using that terminal, and instead will contract with one of the airport’s three fixed-base operators to handle its planes. Fixed-base operators often provide the primary scheduling, aircraft parking and concierge service at smaller airports. Little said his company is finalizing a deal with Flightline First Aviation, although he’s not opposed to discussing the possibility of using the airport’s main terminal when it is completed.

“We would love to have that discussion,” Little said.

Typically, establishing dedicated air service would require clearance from the Transportation Security Administration, but because the company will only use airplanes with nine seats, such approval is not necessary, Little said.

Southern Airways will run standard background checks on all passengers to make sure they don’t appear on TSA’s No Fly list, and company pilots will be trained to spot suspicious behavior.

In addition, the company has the right to search any bags upon request, he said. The more relaxed security environment is a selling point for the company, he said.

“Generally these planes are not the sort of planes anybody is going to have any interest in hijacking,” Little said.

Little’s intentions caught some airport officials by surprise since the company didn’t have to go through the Orleans Levee District, which manages the airport, to gain approval. Louis Capo, the director of non-flood assets for the levee district, said he hadn’t had a chance to examine Little’s plans, but didn’t foresee the move as a problem since the airport’s fixed base operators regularly handle planes of that size.

Capo confirmed that it would be the first time the airport has had planes arriving and departing on a fixed schedule since 1946. He said the change could only be a positive for the airport.

Stephen Oliveri, a Metairie resident who follows aviation issues, called the news promising for the airport, although he said one of the keys for Southern Airways will be getting less affluent residents to consider the Lakefront Airport for their normal travel.

Because dedicated service has been absent from the facility for so long, many residents won’t seek it out when planning a trip, said Oliveri, who has previously worked for Frontier and Air Tran Airways.

“I think promotion would be the key,” Oliveri said.

Little said his company will target those travelers who may previously have driven to the Gulf Coast or Mississippi because of the cost of airfare. The company expects New Orleans to be one of its busiest locations because of its existing appeal as a tourist destination, Little said.

“New Orleans is a great weekend destination for people who live in the Destin area,” he said. “New Orleans provides another destination airport and not just another origination airport for us. ... Our competition is not airlines at Armstrong. Our competition is Ford and General Motors.”